Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Jackie Kai Ellis had everything she thought she should want in life, but she was unhappy. By her late twenties she had achieved the markers of success that most people craved, but instead of bringing her joy, things brought her misery. The Measure of My Powers is the memoir of how she turned all that around.
The founder of Beaucoup Bakery in Vancouver, Kai Ellis is now also a travel writer. This memoir, however, focuses on the time leading up to her success, and her struggles to get there. She talks about her childhood, about her marriage that made her retreat inwards, her struggles with eating and her desire to find a purpose. The book uncovers the fact that the things you’re taught to want in life are not necessarily what will make you happy.
Jackie taught herself to bake as a child because her mother wouldn’t buy her sweets, and it is that kind of tenacity and resolve that she comes to reclaim over the course of the memoir. She works through feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness, finding salvation only in her cooking, and eventually finds the courage within herself to go after the things she actually wants.
The writing is honest and mirrors the aesthetic beauty of the book itself: the pages become pale pastel colours as she starts to discover new things, and each chapter begins with a simple full-page image. It is rare to find a physical book that is in and of itself so visually enticing.
As can be expected with the memoir of a baker, The Measure of My Powers is rooted in food. Each chapter is anchored around a particular pastry or dish and its significance to her, and each food is used as a vehicle to explore Kai Ellis’ emotional world. In this way, a chocolate chip cookie is not just an afternoon treat during her depression; it is the only thing that makes waking up each morning bearable. Every chapter then concludes with her recipe for the featured item, linking her stories to the cooking that sustains her, and ultimately inviting the reader to experience that same act of creation themselves.
In addition to food, travel is also central to the book. Kai Ellis’ time in Paris rejuvenates her and allows her to uncover parts of her personality that she’d been stifling, and gives her life new direction. In this sense, the memoir also examines the need to physically leave things behind, in order to see yourself without the influence of the society and the people who initially shaped you.
The book does jump around in time, as it is organized by themes rather than chronologically, which can sometimes make the transition from one chapter to another rather choppy. However, though this can affect the flow of her story, it allows for the organization of ideas around food. This lets her explore her most poignant memories of eggs, for example, together in one place, and allows for connections between moments that are sometimes separated by years.
In the end, it is precisely because The Measure of My Powers takes us through Kai Ellis’ struggles that the book is so uplifting. As a partner in her journey to find happiness, the reader, too, is rewarded by her courage. It is ultimately a memoir about the joy in finding what you really want, and about being able to define success for yourself.
The Measure of My Powers is published by Penguin Random House.